Putting people back into the customer experience equation

One of the biggest issues that I have with the customer experience movement is that the process, technology, efficiency and standardisation mindset that is appropriate in the manufacturing environment is being applied to the services industries and the service environment. And in the process the very best of what people have to offer (the human touch, flexibility, improvisation, creativity…..) is being taken out of the picture:  the opportunity to create that emotional bond is sacrified for efficiency.

At the same time, today, I have not been able to do much today (back is playing up) and so I spent some time re-reading an old book (published in 1999) and called “Market Leadership Strategies for Service Companies”.  As I have spent the bulk of my life working in, delivering and advising companies with a heavy service orientation the following passages speak to me and I want to share them with you:

Employees are not the problem, management is the problem

” Over-engineered employees desperately need to once again pursue the most personally satisfying work goal: doing things that make a difference in the eyes of customers.  Employees intuitively know that their core mission should be to provide the kind of help to customers that is truly needed …..Their company’s seeming indifference to being perceived by customers as unique frustrates them……..The net effect is that millions of employees feel robotic in their daily execution of quality, cycle time reduction, re-engineering and a host of other operational activities that perpetuate rather than improve the company….”

Employees are incredibly important and yet misunderstood, under-utilized and over-structured

“Employees are often the most misunderstood, underutilized, and over-structured assets of a service companies.  But next to customers they are the second most valuable asset that companies have.  The problem lies in the perception of the role that employees play in the customer experience.  Many service companies view their employees simply as part of a process that produces an end output – a physical product to be delivered to a customer.  If a customer’s primary focus is on functional performance of the physical product, the employees generally do not need to be involved with the customer experience.  But with services the situation is different.  In fact, in service companies the employees are very involved in the customer’s experience.”

Big mistake: dehumanizing people all in the mistaken (manufacturing) view of quality

” The mistake made by well meaning and well schooled managers is to dehumanize their people – all in the name of quality control.  Service managers attempt to make employees interchangeable.  Although industrialising the service may be important and even necessary, taking the “performers” out of the equation leads to a neutered, indistinguishable experience for customers. ”

Product and quality through people – not by replacing them with self-service technology, standard processes and scripts

“Productivity and quality improvement come from having people involved with customers – people who want the responsibility, can manage themselves, respond well to pressure from customers, and who are highly motivated through skills, job opportunities and pay advancements.”

My conclusion, my interpretation

People – customers, employees, contractors, suppliers, partners matter.  In fact they are critical to business success in service intensive operations and industries.  If you are worthy and you have the know how you can tap into the very best of what they can offer: energy, enthusiasm, passion, creativity, flexibility, discipline, intelligence, wisdom.  And that in itself is ultimately the source of competitive advantage, ongoing renewal, new product development, great customer experience, growth and profitability.

Yet as a very wise French teacher told me when I was about 10 years old: “you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink”.  I believe that is the case with many companies, many CEOs and many management teams.  If they do not value their employees, you cannot make them value them.  Which means the door is wide open to those that get the message and are willing to blaze the trail. For example, John Lewis – who recently delivered a great set or financial results when many other retailers are struggling and blaming the weather.

The core challenge facing the customer experience designer

From a customer point of view what matters is an ‘effective’ organisation – one that is good at anticipating and responding to the diversity of customers and their needs.  That means designing the organisation to be flexible, adaptable, versatile – this allows the organisation to absorb and effectively deal with the variety of demands that are placed on the organisation by customers.  This in turn requires the organisation to have ‘redundancy’ built into it.  That is a fancy way of saying that it needs extra resources (“fat”) to deal with and take advantages of unexpected difficulties and opportunities – to cater for the inherent unpredictability of the world.  Finally, making the parts work well together (integration) is a key requirement of effectiveness.  Think of a car it is only of value if all the components work well together.

Organisations are enmeshed in an ideology that values efficiency and structure that lends towards fragmentation.  The focus is on cutting out all the ‘fat’ so as to minimise operating costs and thus drive efficiency.   This way of thinking involves lots of efforts in up front forecasting and planning to predict and manage demand.  It also involves finding and standardising on the one best way of doing things and then striving to make customers, employees, suppliers and partners to use that one way.   This way of thinking encourages and insists that managers control the real world – at least their piece of it: to act on it so as to force it into the shape that was envisaged in the plan.

So customers want organisation to dance to their specific, individual, tunes.  Whereas organisations insist that customers fall into line – the line that reduces operating costs and thus maximises profitability.  That is how we come to the gaping hole between what customers want and what organisations deliver.

Sometimes the gaping hole gets smaller – at least for a while – when the organisation finds a way of being effective (customer perspective) by taking actions that improve efficiency.  Enter the category of self-service: ATMs, electronic banking, e-boarding card, well designed IVRs to do standard stuff like top up mobile phones come to mind.   At other times the gaping hole grows larger: sales assistants who know less about the products then the shopper, badly designed IVRs, waiting a long time to speak to a human being, call centre agents who are not in a position to help and so pass you on and then on again and so forth.

The fascinating thing about ‘social media’  is that it provides a great opportunity for organisations to be effective (from a customer perspective) whilst being firmly wedded to efficiency.  Yet, there is little movement in the direction of social media because there are a couple of things organisations are more wedded to than efficiency.  Secrecy, ownership and control – in every organisation lurks the dictator.  Again we have a divide: customers want organisations to be open, truthful, clear and collaborative.  Organisations are wedded to secrecy, spin, ambiguity, ownership and control.  And this divide explains why so few organisations have adopted social media to bring customers into the heart of the organisation.

So the challenge that falls to the customer experience designer is how to deliver the effectiveness, openness, transparency and participation that customers want whilst being embedded in an organisation that worships at the altar of efficiency, secrecy, ownership and control – sacrificing many customers in the process.  This is not an easy trick to pull off and it is why I have profound respect for all the people in organisations battling to improve the customer experience!